Eye on the Middle East Jul/Aug 2016

Israel has acquiesced to a plan to transfer sovereignty of two strategically important islands in the Red Sea from Egypt to Saudi Arabia as part of an informal, emerging alliance between Israel and its Sunni Muslim neighbors.

The islands—Tiran and Sanafir—are located at the entrance to the Straits of Tiran, which is Israel’s only access to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba (Gulf of Eilat). Egypt’s blockade of the Straits in May 1967 precipitated the Six-Day War.

The 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty guarantees Israeli vessels freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran. With these islands passing to Saudi sovereignty, some analysts have expressed concerns that this freedom may be in jeopardy.

Israeli officials approved the transfer after Riyadh gave Jerusalem written assurances it will “recognize and respect” Israel’s right to free passage through the Straits. “We reached an agreement between the four parties—the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the United States—to transfer the responsibility for the islands, on condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the peace agreement,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was quick to clarify there will be “no direct relationship between the kingdom and Israel due to the return of these islands.” By publicly pledging to uphold the obligations of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, however, Saudi Arabia has implicitly recognized the Camp David Accords and Israel’s right to exist.

Middle East analyst Simon Henderson believes the agreement reflects a “growing maturity in tentative Saudi links with Jerusalem.” According to Henderson, “Officially, Riyadh still opposes formal relations with Israel, but both countries obviously share similar views on key issues, such as the threat posed by Iran. The latest development in the Straits of Tiran suggests that their agenda of common interests is broadening.”

Motivated by mutual concerns over Iran and the Islamic State (ISIS), Saudi Arabia and Israel have been involved in covert diplomacy for years. It recently emerged that Saudi and Israeli officials have held at least five secret meetings—in India, Italy, and the Czech Republic—to discuss the common threat Iran poses to the Middle East.

The Saudi-Israel talks are part of a larger effort to create a Sunni Muslim front against Iran. In January 2016, Dore Gold, director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, revealed that Israel now has contacts with “almost every Arab state.” Gold attributed the push for such ties to a shared animosity toward Iran: “Clearly, there’s been a convergence of interests between Israel and many Sunni Arab states given the fact that they both face identical challenges in the region.”

Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, framed it this way: “What we have with the Sunni countries is based on two common interests. They don’t like the Iranians, and they are afraid of Islamism.”

A weak link in the emerging alliance to counterbalance Iran is Egypt, which, among myriad political and economic problems, is confronting an Islamist insurgency. In a show of support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Saudi King Salman recently paid a five-day visit to Cairo. He pledged to pump billions of dollars into Egypt to shore up an economy that has been devastated by years of political turmoil and jihadist attacks. In exchange, el-Sisi agreed to transfer sovereignty of the two islands in the Straits of Tiran.

The Saudi investments may be a small price to pay to ensure stability in—and buy loyalty from—Egypt, which has one of the largest militaries in the Middle East. Economic collapse in Egypt would probably deal a deathblow to Saudi efforts to prevent Iran from dominating the region.

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